Artangel & Mark Storor: a tender subject

19 March 2012

Artangel are known for commissioning work that seeks to challenge our perceptions of art and push boundaries, often involving unusual settings and situations to fully engage the viewer. Mark Storor’s a tender subject lives up to all these traditions we’ve come to expect; it’s an immersive performance/installation, at times deeply chilling and unforgettable.

The challenge in writing about this project is not revealing too much to those hoping to go, but it opened my eyes to some interesting issues and a context I’m rarely confronted by but feel inclined to share.

The power of the piece lay in communicating some very heavy themes – about human rights, freedom vs confinement and the territory of prison rarely experienced first-hand. Centred around Storor’s three-year investigation into the British prison system, the artist chose to focus in particular on gay men within this environment; an exploration of hostility, brutality, violence and moments of tenderness.

a tender subject began as a series of workshops with a cross-section of prisoners and prison officers, bringing to light the complexities surrounding these institutional relationships. The fragments of narrative running through the piece developed out of the stories Storor had collected from the collaborators, and were read as stand-alone scenes rather a linear story.

Significantly, Arangel collaborated with Only Connect, a creative arts company for prisoners, and ex-offenders – the men featured in the performance weren’t formally trained actors and some had been in prison in the past. Knowing this certainly lent more meaning to the work and made it all the more evocative and authentic.

Haunting from the offset, we were bundled into serco vans by police wardens, taken to a secret location – the basement of a raw storage space – and led through a sequence of rooms where scenes unfolded that were in equal part provocative, poignant and disturbing. As a passive observer in the peripatetic performance, you were left feeling chilled by the cold, damp environment and the hard-hitting content.

Although it might not resonate with everyone, Storor’s socially-conscious work demonstrates the power of art to act as a tool for communication. As well as the role an artist can play in conveying important issues to an audience that might not otherwise be exposed to them. And once again, Artangel have provided a valuable platform to help realise a very ambitious project.

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